“No Problem, I’ll Delete It.” Good Luck With That.

By Jack Limpert

The Washington Post had a good piece this week on Jimmy Fasusi, a Nigerian immigrant who loves to repair typewriters. The story said that although much of his business is repairing more modern equipment, “manual typewriters are his passion.”

Fasusi says customers from as far away as Russia and South America buy the typewriters he sells on his store’s website. “They’re motivated, Fasusi thinks, by concerns over government surveillance of online activity.”

A year ago I put up a post, “Stop the World! The Typewriter Is Coming Back.” It was based on a story that said Germany may start using typewriters to write confidential documents to prevent Internet spying. “Berlin isn’t the first country to consider reverting to old-school technology. Germany follows in the footsteps of Russia, which reportedly took similar measures after whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the Kremlin had been a target of NSA spying.”

As a magazine editor, I loved the speed and flexibility of computers but I kept a typewriter next to my desk, mostly for writing short notes. I’d attach the note to a story from a magazine or newspaper and if it was intended for someone in the office, I liked to walk it over to them and talk about it. I always felt more good ideas came out of face-to-face conversations than from sending emails.

Not putting everything on computer also comes into play when you’re working on a story that could interest lawyers. I was involved in enough litigation that alarm bells went off when I’d see an internal email or digital comment that a lawyer could use to attack our fairness or accuracy. “This makes it sound like we really hate this guy.” “Double check this—I don’t have much faith in this writer.”

When I’d say something to an editor or writer about not putting certain kinds of comments in an email, they’d sometimes say, “No problem, I’ll delete it.” Good luck with that. Once in the system, it’s always there.

When a lawsuit is  filed, one of the first things a plaintiff’s lawyer does is demand to see all emails or editing comments about an individual, subject, or story. Then try to explain in a deposition why one of your editors questioned the writer’s fairness or thought the writer needed to be double-checked.

Notes written on a typewriter? Neither the NSA nor a plaintiff’s lawyer can see those. Or you can follow the advice attributed to a Chicago politician: “Never write it if you can say it, and never say it if you can just nod your head.”

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